Shrinking incomes are driving Michigan educators like ‘Coach Smitty’ into severe financial hardship — and some out of the profession entirely
EAST LANSING, Mich. — In a situation that spotlights the financial hardships endured by growing numbers of Michigan educators in recent years, a veteran St. Clair County teacher has been selected for a Habitat for Humanity home.
Algonac Community Schools teacher Jeff Smith, who also coaches high school football and softball in the district, has seen his pay decrease, while recent state laws have simultaneously increased his health insurance and pension costs.
The 43-year-old father has been sharing a one-bedroom duplex with his two young sons, who share the bedroom. Smith sleeps in a dining room separated from the kitchen by a curtain hung from a shower rod. He does not have cable television, and his parents pay for his phone.
The 16-year veteran teacher has been forced to consider other career prospects as his income has continued to shrink following years of step freezes and pay cuts in his district. But teaching is what he loves to do.
“My reward is seeing kids do well, but I just want to be able to pay my bills,” Smith said.
In a unique partnership between Blue Water Habitat for Humanity and the Michigan Education Association, Smith will be helped in construction and fundraising for his new energy-efficient, three-bedroom home by members of his local union, along with community members and his students and players.
“It’s been a godsend for me,” he said.
MEA President Steve Cook praised the ingenuity of the Habitat-MEA partnership, and condemned state budget cuts that have created such hardship for dedicated school employees like Smith.
“While these are wonderful acts of kindness and charity, the fact that college-educated veteran teachers qualify for these homes should be a wake-up call to policymakers,” Cook said.
This is the second Habitat house build for a St. Clair County teacher. Last fall, Yale preschool teacher Lea Chapa was a Habitat house recipient.
Two recent studies highlight the challenges faced by Michigan school teachers. According to the Center for Educational Performance and Information, actual salaries and take-home pay for many teachers has dropped every year for the last four years. The Economic Policy Institute released a study last week showing the gap between teacher pay and the earnings of other college graduates has reached record levels in the past 20 years. In 1994, the disparity was 1.7 percent, while in 2015, it has ballooned to 17 percent.
For Smith, these are more than just numbers. His ability to provide basic necessities for his family has been an ongoing struggle. Public Act 152, passed in 2011, limits the amount districts can contribute toward employee healthcare. That law has forced him to absorb an additional $150 monthly deduction in his paycheck, on top of pay cuts, including a $7,000 salary reduction, which happened a few years ago.
“Every year, everything goes up except my wages,” Smith said.
Stagnant wages, exorbitant health care premiums and increased contributions to the pension system are forcing many school teachers and support staff out of the middle class. Teachers with less than five years of experience are leaving the profession at record levels, and enrollment in Michigan’s college teacher preparation programs has declined by nearly 40 percent in the last five years.
“Those statistics ought to concern parents of school kids and motivate the Governor and legislators to address the problem. Budget cuts have wreaked havoc on public schools and school employees across the state. These problems have reached a breaking point, and the only solution is for policy makers to treat education funding as a top priority,” said Cook.
Learn more about Smith’s story.
Contact: Erica Shekell, Byrum & Fisk Communications, (517) 333-1606